Between inspiration and vicariousness

Kurt Vonnegut’s signature novel, Slaughterhouse Five, takes us to the midst of World War II. Roland Weary is an American soldier on German soil. He thinks of himself a war-hero who has avoided capture and is saving American lives behind German lines. He expects to be admired, adored and decorated. But all of this happens within his cranium. In reality, the first shot he fired alerted the Germans to the position of their machine gun and they mowed down his entire company. He was its only survivor. In the real world (of Vonnegut’s novel) he is a hapless soldier in a foxhole, cocooned under several layers of clothing, while his glorious illusions protect his mind from coming to terms with his ineptitude.

The psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells us how the fundamental difference between humans and other creatures is our ability to synthesize experiences. Our brain has lets us imagine and design intricate machines, transform the planet and travel to outer space. The flipside, though, is that we are the only animals who are prone to vicariousness – to live in the virtual realities that we concoct in our heads.

The thin line between inspiration and vicariousness has often intrigued me. When do we cross this line?

The biggest difference between the two states is action. The extent to which we’re inspired by something is the extent to which we act upon what we have learnt. Or else, it is a mere simulation to please our minds. And once our minds are pleased, they see no reason to act.

The question is less about what you know about the world, and more about what you have shipped with that knowledge.

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